Where Israel's 'Guns of Navarone' lie silent

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The Independent Online

In the "centre for world terror", the Lebanese farmers are guiding their ploughs through fields, gently flicking sticks over the necks of their horses.

Lebanon is where Iranian Revolutionary Guards are supposed to have been pouring in from Tehran. The country's National Symphony Orchestra has been playing Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saens. And down here on the border with Israel, where 8,000 new missiles have supposedly arrived for the Hizbollah, the women are drying tobacco leaves in the sun.

The "centre for world terror" comes from the imagination of Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, who was flying to Washington last night for a warm welcome from President George Bush. The non-existent Revolutionary Guards and 8,000 missiles – at the weekend, the Israelis upped the figure to 10,000 then mysteriously brought it back to 8,000 – are the invention of Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister.

In reality, there hasn't been an Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon since 1984 – Mr Peres is just 18 years late with his facts. As for the missiles, the Hizbollah would like to know where they are.

So why is Lebanon being set up in this way? It's not that the Israelis don't believe their own myths. At Sheikh Abad Hill, the wire mesh of the United Nations Blue Line marking the Lebanese-Israeli border actually bisects an ancient tomb, variously regarded as the last resting place of an imam or a rabbi, depending which side of the frontier you're on.

But, just the other side, the Israelis are building a massive bunker of black concrete and machine-gun nests, a towering 70ft-high emplacement of camouflage drapes and communications towers. Israeli technicians are fixing dishes to the masts and the face of the bunker, while soldiers supervise another blockhouse along the border fence. The UN boys call it "the Guns of Navarone" and you can see why.

But what is it being built for? The two unarmed Hizbollah men – one in camouflage fatigues and army boots with a battered two-way radio in his pocket, the other in an old jacket, hunched against the breeze – shrug their shoulders. They sit on the dirt, 10 feet from the wire, watching the construction of the behemoth with bemusement.

Almost as bemused as Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, who has been expressing his outrage at American claims that Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida are planning to set up a base in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which a Yemeni al-Qa'ida leader has secretly visited. It's a smear campaign, he says. "We regularly find in Israeli and American newspapers references linking Lebanon to terrorism," he told the Lebanese parliament on Monday. "One time, we read about terrorist camps in the Bekaa, other times they refer to negotiations with al-Qa'ida for moving the organisation to Lebanon. These are malicious allegations and pure lies."

Much good did these words do. Still the Israelis claim that Iran or Mr bin Laden or Syria are turning Lebanon into a "terror-centre" or – this from Mr Peres again -- a "powder keg".

The reality is quite different. The border hasn't been so quiet in 25 years. Save for a brief attack at Shebaa farms, a terrain of abandoned fields belonging to Lebanon but occupied by Israel since 1967 (the UN says its fate should be decided at a peace conference and puts it on Israel's side of the Blue Line) the only action has been in the air.

Forever since Israel restarted its reconnaissance flights over Lebanon – clear violations of the Blue Line agreement, according to the UN – the Hizbollah have taken to blasting 57mm anti-aircraft rounds into the air over the Israeli border.

Each time a contrail whispers up the pale blue skies towards Beirut, the Hizbollah bang away with their old gun above Kiryat Shmona. They have sent some splinters into the gardens of a kibbutz but it's the sound that is meant to impress. The 57mm rounds, fired from a relic of Stalingrad vintage, explode with a powerful detonation. If Israel's pilots want to rattle the windows of Beirut with their sonic booms, the Hizbollah are saying, then Israel's citizens can endure a few noisy explosions in the sky.

General Gaby Ashkenazi was enjoying his Israeli Northern Command's annual dinner when the first reports came in of "three loud explosions" over Kiryat Shmona. Some Israeli children were sent into shelters. The Hizbollah were accused of breaching the Blue Line agreement with their airbursts – it was indeed a violation, just like the Israeli overflights – but no- one was hurt. It's a dangerous game. If just one splinter hits an Israeli, shells will come whiffling back across the border.

But it doesn't constitute a "powder keg", let alone a "centre of world terror". The latest press report to finger Lebanon claimed that one of Osama's henchmen had turned up in Tyre, a largely Shia Muslim city that would brook no supporters of Mr bin Laden in its midst.

A security source in southern Lebanon believes many of these tales are being generated by a private Israeli website. "There's an ex-journalist who runs it and every time he's told that Mr bin Laden's in Beirut or Iranians are swarming through the Bekaa, he puts this stuff out," the source said.

"Then the Americans pick it up and it turns up on the New York front pages."

Mr Harri, the Prime Minister, has reason to be worried. Lebanon is $32bn (£23bn) in debt and the Americans aren't encouraging anyone to bail him out. The Hizbollah have gone back on the US "terrorism" list. The American ambassador to Beirut has been telling Mr Hariri's government to send its soldiers to the border and take over from the Hizbollah – which is what Israel wants.

And now government officials are saying President Bush tried to persuade King Abdullah of Jordan to help to cancel next month's Arab presidential summit in Beirut.

Why give legitimacy or credit to a state with Hizbollah "terrorists" in its borders? But if Lebanon would obligingly disarm the Hizbollah – another of Israel's aims – there would be no problem about that summit.

The real danger, of course, is that the Hizbollah are indeed paid and armed by Iran – albeit not with those fantasy 8,000 missiles – and, since Iran was included in President Bush's messianic State of the Union address as part of the "axis of terror", Lebanon, via the Hizbollah, fears it will become part of the axis.

What would come next? Israeli air raids against "terrorist training camps" in the Bekaa? Or US air raids on Lebanon?

Below the Navarone bunker and the whitewashed tomb of Abad and the two Hizbollah men, the UN's peace-keepers sit on deckchairs, reading newspapers beside their white-painted SISU armoured vehicle.

Another peaceful day on the border, disturbed only by the hum of a generator in the Israeli blockhouse. No Osama bin Laden, no al-Qa'ida, no powder kegs, no missiles, no Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The centre of world terror is quiet today.

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